More pay to play? 

Congress considers nationwide user free program

The explosion in recreation use on the nation’s forests has prompted Congress to consider a consistent, nationwide user-fee program. A USDA Forest Service spokeswoman says taxes simply don’t cover all the costs of maintenance at national forests and parks, and that a consistent method of implementing user fees will be necessary.

Meanwhile, critics of the program call user fees “the thin edge of a wedge” that will allow the federal government, with the approval of the Bush administration, to privatize public lands by allowing for-profit concessionaires and more user fees.

The recreation fee demo project has been in effect for five years at select recreation sites around the country, where fees collected are spent on improvements and maintenance. Though Congress initially approved the fee demo project as a pilot project, fee demo has been extended, with the most recent extension set to expire on Sept. 30, 2004.

Congress may act well before then, however. Recently, Congress asked the federal land management agencies that implement user fees to pull together all the information gleaned from five years of experience in order to come up with plan for a nationwide user fee program.

For Scott Silver, director of an Oregon group called Wild Wilderness, the user fee program is one step in the inexorable push towards “public-private” management of public lands, a move he says is endorsed by President George Bush and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton.

Silver has obtained a copy of an internal memo from the Forest Service that demonstrates what he has been saying all along: that user fees have no solid support in Congress. The memo was written by Teri Cleeland, a Forest Service program leader in Washington, D.C. who met with House staff members in November to discuss making the user fee program permanent.

According to Cleeland’s memo, Congress does not agree either about the effectiveness of the program or whether it should be made permanent. The memo notes, among things, that there is “No interest from the pursuing replacement authority and [Congress does] not favor fees for dispersed recreation activities, such as backcountry use or hiking.” Additionally, there is concern with charging visitors too much and limiting their visits, and a suggestion that they adopt “the Disneyland concept—one fee for all activities.” Before a national program is implemented, however, the Forest Service “needs to get the heat turned down in Ore., Wash., Idaho, and Calif. before permanent authority will be considered” and put out a number of “hotspots.”

The opposition to user fees in the Pacific Northwest may represent “hotspots” to congressional staffers, but to Silver it’s more like democracy in action.

“Right now it’s my contention that the program has had a couple of rocky years,” he says. “It’s clear the issue is not without its problems. As it becomes more understood, opposition grows.”

Federal land managers are trying to stay a jump ahead of user fee opponents, he adds. Rather than let the opponents gather steam and clout, the Forest Service and their federal partners in user fees are trying to make the pilot project permanent before it runs out in mid-2004. The next six months, he says, will be critical.

Silver isn’t challenging the pilot project for now. “Let them have it until 2004,” he says. By then he believes opposition will have grown so strong, not only in the northwest hotspots, but nationwide, that the program won’t survive a populist challenge.

Cleeland says that Silver obtained a copy of her memo from “anti-fee demo folks” and mistakenly attributes House staffer quotes to her. “He was quoting me on things I didn’t say, but what congressional staffers said.”

She argues that regardless of whether people are for or against user fees, it’s time to pull together all the information gained from the last five years and move on. Last fall’s hearing on the subject before a forest health subcommittee was a “wake-up call” to the agencies that charge user fees, she says. All winter, Cleeland and her colleagues have been gathering information on the user fee program on how well it’s worked, whether low-income people are being shut out of public lands, if user fees should be applied to developed sites only and what a nationwide user fee program would look like.

One question not asked is whether anyone should pay at all for what has historically been free. Cleeland argues that public lands have seen a surge in recreation use in recent years, and taxes can’t keep up with use, and resources deteriorate as a result. Fees, she says, provide value, and the recreation-loving public doesn’t want to sacrifice value.

Silver says user fees are a poor trade-off. In exchange for their heritage, the American people pay a few dollars and get outhouses and picnic tables.

Federal land management agencies hope to have a final report detailing the results of five years of user fees across the country, possibly by this spring. Cleeland acknowledges that gauging the success of the program thus far is difficult, since there are no good criteria for defining success.

For Montanans, long accustomed to free access to the great outdoors, the biggest question is where the fees will stop. If the Forest Service can charge $2 a day to view the scenery at Lake Como, near Hamilton, seasonal hiker passes may not be very far behind.

“I don’t see that happening,” says Cleeland. “People look at national forests differently than they look at national parks.”

Silver says the agency is “engaged in a last-ditch effort to calm the growing opposition to a program that threatens to burst into flames.”

The rush to privatize public lands, he says, “may not be stoppable.” Unless the American people make their opposition known, privatization is all but guaranteed, he believes. “They are stealing your heritage.”

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